Nataraja, Shivakamasundari and Subramanya Rathas, Chidambaram, July 2011     photo-Jagannath Babu

I am sitting in the 100º heat of the lobby of the Hotel Saradharam typing. No AC but Wi-Fi, so I try to perch on the edge of the inappropriately plush cushions of the couch beneath two whirling fans that busily attempt to dry out my contact lenses. I’ve soaked through layers of my sari and my computer rests on my thighs like a portable oven. There are a couple of tiny ineffectual mosquitoes flirting with my neck and arms – so sluggish in their movements that I easily swat them away before they manage to settle. I’m fantasizing about what it will feel like to peel off the layers of my sari to take yet another cold shower, about consuming a cool lime soda and a dosa. Yet, I’m determined to write.

I have come to Chidambaram in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu with my teacher, Dr. Douglas Brooks, and some friends for the annual Ani Festival, which marks the seasonal transition. This is one of the only times that the temple’s presiding deity, Nataraja, is removed from the Cit Saba, the heart of the temple, and brought through the streets in the most spectacular way imaginable: towering and elaborately carved carts hosting Nataraja and several other deities are draped with thousands of flowers strung into garlands, while surrounding the carts are burning ghee-torches, music, fireworks, and innumerable pilgrims. Hundreds of us pull the carts’ giant ropes to move them through the streets around the temple complex. We have come to honor our friend Kirubakaran, one of the temple’s Dikshitar priests. Kirubakaran was chosen to lead the festival this year – a once in a lifetime opportunity for him, for his family, and for us.

Selvaganesan, Greg, Susanna, Kirubakaran, Pushpa, Vishali, Harrison, Vasu, and the kids at the temple entrance, photo-Jagannath Babu

Take a profound religious ceremony, cross it with the ultimate street fair, add the 4th of July, and you’ll have a sense of what it is like.  The way in which I’ve described this 10-day opulent visual extravaganza to my friends is “Fellini on acid” because I don’t know how else to evoke the wild sensation of it all. The truth is that it is deeply sweet and ecstatically beautiful. It makes you want to bow down. And you do so again and again.

Inside the Temple-Kirubakaran after the Homa, July 2011, photo-Doug Neal

So it is in this context that I find myself wondering about the urge to write, to record. I’ve actually written less this trip than I have in any of my previous trips to India. I wanted to just be in the experience instead of continually engaging in the meta-cognitive process of thinking about what I’m doing while I’m doing it, evaluating what I’m seeing and experiencing, processing what I’m receiving through my senses so that instead of just sweating, I am thinking about writing about sweating, and then revisiting my wording and revising it in my head until I think, “Yes – that is perfectly evoking this moment of sweating.”

A few years ago, my parents decided to stop taking photos when they traveled for this very reason. They didn’t want their trip to be a step removed from the actual experience by having every view mediated through the camera lens. I understood and admired this decision, yet I can’t seem to utterly commit to it. I am proud of myself when I put down the camera for a couple of days and let my friends document the experience. But I happen to be a profoundly visual person, who learns and recalls through my own process of documentation. My art history notes from college were outrageous – outline form with thumbnail sketches. I retained amazing amounts of information.

Ideally I would be able to do the trip twice – once just sinking into the tough lushness of it all, into the realm of the heightened sensory experience that South India has to offer – and then a second time with my camera, my notebooks, my pens, my computer and its satisfying clicks and taps. This is my fantasy. But, of course, it is the fleeting quality of the experience that makes it so precious, that intensifies it and makes me yearn for what has already occurred yesterday or an hour ago, even as I sit here typing these thoughts. The visceral feeling of the experience slips away, leaving an evocative residue captured by my words, my images, my overflowing notations on my life.

Ani Festival, Chidambaram, July 2011, photo-Jagannath Babu
Susanna Harwood Rubin

Author Susanna Harwood Rubin

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